A ‘fireside chat’ with Rob Derhak from moe.
Hailed by American Songwriter for their “mind-bending musicality,” moe. is treasured for their mesmerizing musical synergy, unfettered showmanship, and smart, resonant songcraft. For three decades, the band has corralled myriad musical forms on a truly original journey rich with crafty, clever songwriting and astonishing resourcefulness. - taken from moe.org
BR: Hey Rob, this is Brian from Bozeman Magazine. How’s it going?
RD: Oh hey, Brian. How are you?
BR: I’m doing great, thanks for asking. Where are you?
RD: I am in Portland, Maine.
BR: Yeah. Oh cool. Well, good afternoon.
RD: Yeah. Thanks for doing this.
BR: We’re excited that you’re coming back this way.
RD: Yeah, I’ve been playing there for a long time.
BR: Do you remember what year it was the first time?
RD: I think it was in the 90s. I’m not certain.
BR: Was that at the Filling Station, maybe?
RD: It was, actually. Is it still doing the same things?
BR: It’s still doing its thing, yes. It hasn’t changed an awful lot, honestly.
RD: I wouldn’t expect it to; that’s perfect.
BR: Yeah. And then if I’m not mistaken, you guys played at the Cat’s Paw also?
RD: Yeah, that’s the other gig?
BR: It’s also pretty much the same. It doesn’t really have live music anymore, but other than that, it’s still pretty much the same.
RD: What do they do there if they don’t do music?
BR: They drink and gamble, I guess. Half of it’s all TVs, and then the other half is just poker machines and stuff. We keep trying to get them to do shows there, but they just do a couple a year for graduation and stuff like that.
RD: What’s the other option there?
BR: Well, the ELM, which you guys have played. The Rialto, and The Filling Station. And there are a couple of other smaller bars that are doing shows. In the summer, there’s quite a bit more, I guess. Like Pine Creek that you’re headed to this June.
RD: Yeah. That seems like a cool place. Kind of psyched about that.
BR: Yeah. What have you guys heard about it?
RD: One of my good friends is there, as you know. He said that it’s just a really… just like a big picnic, almost like it’s a festival. People go there to just kind of let loose and there are rooms and stuff.
BR: Well there are a couple of campgrounds nearby and then there’s like, maybe four or five, containers they converted into nice hotel room-type things on the property there.
RD: Yeah, I mean, I know bands that are playing there and you know, they’re talking about how great it is.
BR: Yeah, it’s got a really good vibe. I’d say that festival description is pretty accurate. I’m pretty psyched.
RD: Yeah. Me too. A few years back I went there (Bozeman) for a wedding and it honestly had been so long that I did not recognize the place.
BR: I hear you; it’s changing faster and faster every year so it’s, yeah, kind of sad. But a little bit inevitable, like other things that are sad… you’re playing Summer Camp Festival next weekend, and it might be the last year as we know it.
RD: Yeah, I mean it’s going to go on hiatus, especially as a giant, you know, so many bands, playing on so many stages—you know, this massive thing. Yeah, it’s going to take a step back. We’ve been part of it since day one, but we don’t run it per se, you know. We just kind of play it and are friends with the promoter and stuff. And I’m sure it’s pretty competitive out there. So, like, trying to put on a festival of that size is stressful.
BR: Yeah. Trying to put on a little small festival is stressful.
RD: That’s true, too. So, it’s like, if you go too small, who’s going to come?
BR: Yeah, Well that’s a bummer. I see that you guys are going to be on the same stage this year as Umphrey’s McGee and maybe do a whole set with them. Is that right?
RD: Yeah; well, I was actually just going over some stuff for that. Now we’re going to play a set, then we do a collaboration set, and then they play a set. So it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
BR: Are you guys gonna swap songs or come up with cool, original cover things, or a little bit of both?
RD: We’ll be jamming with each other on covers, and each other’s originals. You know, swap stuff around. We’re kind of doing the logistics of that right now.
BR: They’ve pretty much been at every Summer Camp too, right?
RD: Um, well, you know, maybe not the first two or three, just because they were, still coming into their own. I don’t know when they started, but it was pretty soon into the Summer Camp thing.
BR: So does moe. have any plans for a new record coming up or anything?
RD: Well, we don’t have any right now because we’ve been touring. Our main focus has been on playing live since Chuck has been rehabbed and back playing after the stroke. We’re making up for a lot of lost time, you know; there was that, and Covid. I had cancer, Chuck had a stroke, and all these things. We haven’t been doing a lot of playing and we missed out on doing a lot of touring. And right now, we also have a new member in the band, Nate Wilson on keys. So we’re trying to get as much playing time together as possible before we get back into the studio, but we’re chomping at the bit for that. We haven’t got a solid plan yet, but we’re writing material and will be busting out.
We have one brand new song that’s coming out in our live shows and we’ll probably have a couple more through the summer. So we’ll be getting new songs out there and testing them out for people here and there and seeing how they go. That’s basically how we’ve always done it. We come up with new tunes, play them live for a while and then we record them on an album. So we’re working in that direction right now.
It’s just a matter of time because we’re so busy playing. We can’t even get together to work on material. We’ve been storing, you know, from the beginning of this year and it’s not slowed down. And so we finally have a good amount of material and we’re going to have the month of November off, actually, and we’re touring straight up through then.
BR: It’s probably hard to take all that time off with the cancer and stroke and Covid.
RD: I mean, yeah. Covid-19, you know we had to get creative with stuff towards the end and do those driving shows and stuff like that, but that was still a few and far between.
BR: Right. How do you feel like all of those things have affected you guys as a band?
RD: Well, it’s interesting. You know, I think it’s made us appreciate each other so much more than we ever could have without having to deal with those things. But some bands, you know, it might just be like, you know what? Fuck this, I’m done. Any relationship with anybody could just be too much work or, you know, whatever it is. But for us, we’ve gotten creative with trying to get answers to what we need to do with each other, and what we need to do with the band, and we’ve gotten closer because we all realize, everything that we all do kind of affects each other.
BR: Yeah. It’s like a living, breathing thing.
BR: On that note, how has the addition of Nate changed, or has it changed, the dynamics of the band and how you all communicate on and off stage since he’s come in since Covid?
RD: You know, Nate has been a friend of ours for a while. He’s done sit-ins, and then Vinny and I started a side band before Chuck had a stroke. But it was with Nate and Tim Palmieri from Lotus. A band called Blue Star Radiation. We were doing a bunch with him.
He just completely fits in with the rest of the band and it wasn’t like something we had to stretch. So the communication has just, you know, it’s been sort of a seamless thing and he’s comfortable with us and what we can say to each other, which is pretty much anything. So we definitely are able to talk about our music. While we’re not playing, we can be frank about what’s working, what’s not working, and everyone has gotten to a point where we can work through stuff for the better of the music.
And then musically, he’s great. We are all listening so much more and we’ve been doing a lot of stuff where we call it loosening the pickle jar. So like basically, if somebody’s soloing, the rest of the band is listening; it’s like trying to open a jar of pickles — you know, you need help sometimes. People can’t open it, you help one at a time by loosening the lid on the jar, and it’s just like our joke about that’s sort of how we jam. We’re listening to what people are doing and we’re loosening that jar for them. That’s just how we kind of look at the whole thing.
BR: Nice. It’s a pretty good analogy. Has Nate been contributing songs to the mix?
RD: Yeah, well he’s got… we actually have one original that we started playing, and he’s got a great voice. Part of having him along was not just the addition and keys, but Chuck, one of the main things he does, are a lot of the harmonies to my songs, and he sang a lot with me. So, Nate has that kind of range that Chuck had. Right now Chuck is still working on his speech skills and he hasn’t gotten to a point where he can sing, as his speech patterns aren’t quite there yet. So Nate has been doing a lot of the harmonies. He sings some covers, and we have a bunch of covers. Stuff that’s a higher range that was traditionally out of our range to sing. So we’ve been able to pick some songs that we haven’t been able to do before.
BR: What do you suppose the hardest song you guys play is? Either technically or for other reasons?
RD: Usually it’s something new. Everybody has a different song, too. Like some song that may be hard for me might not be difficult for the drummer, or might not be difficult for the guitarist, and vice versa, you know. So it’s like, we have some complicated material that, there’s a lot of remembering stuff like, ‘well, Chuck had a tune called New Hope for the New Year, which was actually kind of complicated but we can’t play it because I can’t say it right now.’
We have a tune called Prestige Worldwide, where there’s a lot of mountain stuff involved, where you have to remember how to play it and it’s like that with our older stuff. So, many times it’s not hard to play anymore. It’s like a part in the middle of Buster. That really just gets this written out long, weird part in an odd time signature and we’ve done it for so long it’s not hard, but we have like something similar to that in Billy Goat and Prestige that are, on the newer end of what we do that’s harder to do.
You know the hard one we have—we haven’t brought it back yet—is called Paper Dragon, and we want to bring that back but we haven’t had the time to really sit down and put the time in to get that going again. But that’s on our very soon to-do list. So that might be the hardest one right now because we don’t actually know it anymore, because it’s been so long since I played it. It was one of those songs where every time we played it live, we would have to go through it at sound check beforehand.
And then when we started doing the Covid shows, after we’ve been not playing at all, there wasn’t enough time in soundcheck to go over the really complicated stuff. So, it’s literally been since, like… like probably 2017 since we played it, but we’re trying to bring that one back.
BR: That’s a good one. So we’re talking about new songs and maybe a new album, and you do write a lot of the songs for the band. Do you have a typical way that you go about writing songs, or is it different every time?
RD: I’ll sit down with my bass or my guitar, and I come up with a groove, or a hook, or a riff. And then, once I have a little bit of it, I’ll sit down with my computer and start putting a drum track on and adding stuff until it’s something. If I get an idea in my head I’ll record it, because I’m not always in the right spot and my memory is bad. So I’ll record it, then I’ll get back to it and then I kind of hash it out with a bass or a guitar. Then I just sit down and I work on the lyrics and once it’s got like a decent assembly of it, I bring it to the band, see what they think. But that’s generally how it goes. Like I get it about 50 to 75 percent where I want it and then I bring it to everybody to get their opinions. It’s very rare that I say, ‘this is exactly how I want the song and it’s not changing.’ I try to work it into the band and then play around with it and see different ways that it works best with everybody’s instrumentation and their styles.
BR: You let them kind of develop their own parts along with what you came up with type of thing?
RD: Yeah, it helps people feel like they have their own stamp on the tune, and they can get attached to it and enjoy doing it.
BR: And that goes the same way if it’s somebody else’s song?
RD: Pretty much. Yeah.
BR: Nice. So outside of yourselves, who are some of your favorite songwriters?
RD: I always have a long list. And then when anyone asks me, I just draw a complete blank of what I really like. I mean, I love Donald Fagan’s stuff from Steely Dan he is one of my favorite songwriters, I really enjoy it. What’s the guy’s name from Death Cab for Cutie — Ben Gibbard?
BR: Yeah, I think so.
RD: Okay, he writes great songs. There’s some, you know, there’s some Grateful Dead stuff that I really enjoy. Like, I like some of the Robert Hunter’s stuff quite a bit, the lyrics are great. Tom Waits, I don’t know, they’re all good ones. I can go down a long road. It’s a rabbit hole.
BR: I think those are all good answers. Robert Hunter came and did a show here back in the day. A solo acoustic show. I got to attend it, and it was pretty amazing. So, outside of those guys, you know, your favorite songwriters and the people that you might listen to all the time. Do you have any “guilty pleasures” when it comes to what you’re listening to? Say you’re driving in your car or something. Stuff that people might not expect?
RD: Yeah, you know I’m definitely like Butt Rock and Dad Rock, and I’m always like, ‘I’m going to listen to Jethro Tull,’ and if it is a freaking afternoon, drinking and having a beer it’s Yacht Rock. So another kind of weird one like that.
BR: That is awesome. So when you guys are out on these tours, now again, finally hitting the road and you get a day off on the road, what do you usually like to go do?
RD: Well, we’ve been doing this for so long, you know? After you play for five days in a row, you don’t want to see or deal with anything. So you, like, if you have two days off, the first day is spent just recovering. Because at 54 years old and playing three to four hour shows every night, your body needs to recover. So you don’t do much, and that’s essentially what happens.
And if we have two days off in a row, you know, you’re hopefully… like, it’s a place where you can chill at the pool, have a cocktail and, you know, just go out to dinner. There’s not a lot of energy left to go and do fun stuff like, you know, go out. Go hiking up a mountain or something, or whatever.
We used to do stuff like, we’d go hiking or biking and bowling on our day off. All of a sudden, as you get older, it’s like that day off just ruined me for the rest of the tour because I’m just destroyed. You know, like, we go bowling, and somebody will mess up their back and can’t play and it’s like, you know, okay, we’re old, we forgot to recover. That’s what the day off is literally — a recovery day. A lot of us are icing. Honestly, you’re icing your elbows, you’re icing your hands. Just trying to recuperate.
And going over all the stuff you haven’t done for the week. Emails. And it’s kind of sad to say, but it’s true. The big thing is trying to find a really good meal for the day off. Yeah, we’re into eating.
BR: What’s your favorite thing to eat? When you’re on the road?
RD: I don’t, you know it seems like we’ve been hitting a lot of places trying to find good ramen lately. It seems like the big thing, but then it’s like you always end up overdoing it on something when you get into it and then you don’t like it for a while. What we try to do is to go and find a place that’s known as being the place for that area. You know, I mean, like, so, if we’re in, Austin, Texas, we’re going to get barbecue, and it’s going to be good barbeque. If we’re in San Diego, we’re going to find really good Mexican food. And if we’re in San Francisco, we’re looking to either get some Italian in the North End or whatever it’s called, or get some really good sushi or ramen or whatever it is.
So it depends on where you are. Yeah. So what am I going to get in Bozeman? What am I going to get in Livingston? Steaks?
BR: Yeah, maybe, the Old Saloon is pretty close to Pine Creek. There are a lot of good restaurants in Bozeman and Livingston these days. That’s kind of what has been happening, less and less dive bars and old dives, and more hotels with fancy restaurants and stuff like that. There’s some pretty good pizza. We’re known for pizza.
RD: I have to check that out then because, you know, we have got a lot of pizza snobs in the band.
BR: For instance, Adam from Red Tractor Pizza is a huge fan, and has great farm to table NY Style Pizza.
Thanks for talking to me today, I have one more question from a DJ at KGLT radio here in town. The ask: If there is one tidbit of advice you have for an upcoming musician who’s still in the bar phases of paying their dues, what would that be?
RD: Well, I guess it depends on what that person is. Like, if we’re talking about a single person who’s just trying to make it in the music world, or if we’re talking about, like, a band that’s trying to make it, I guess my advice would be slightly different, but I think the one thing you can always follow is, stay true to what you’re doing, to what you want to do and just be completely kind to the people who work at the place you’re playing and everyone you’re playing with and have that show through in what you’re doing, you know? You’re going to want to keep playing, you’re going to want to keep doing what you do, and people will see that. And that, you know, it doesn’t matter if you’re a solo artist. If you’re playing with another band, everybody will see that in what you’re doing.
BR: Yeah, I think that’s good advice. I kind of was looking at the same advice, just in my own head, but I was thinking about a new venue that opens and how it’s important for them to do the same thing. Be nice to the bands that they’re hiring and to all of their customers. It’s just a good rule of thumb in general, right?
RD: It is a good rule of thumb. I just went to hear my friends’ band play. They’re a really good cover band. And they’re playing at this sort of pizza place, whatever, that caters to local people, and the owner of the place loves these guys. So she’s like, ‘I want you guys to play here on Friday,’ or whatever, and these guys are older like me, but, you know, they just loved playing, so they get together, they play whenever, and they’re really good.
So they don’t have a great setup for music at all, but they do music every weekend. So it’s them up in the corner kind of thing, and the owner loves them and booked them, and then they show up and the woman managing the place is just a complete asshole to these guys and just like yelling at them, not allowing them to like do anything and like basically being derogatory and like hates them. I’m like this is no way to run a place and I’m not going to come back to this place because of this. You know musicians should not be treated like that and it wasn’t like they were begging to play there. The owner asked that they play at this venue. Asked them to be there. So sure, yeah, I hear you and, like you said, it kind of goes the same way for musicians or the venue or anyone in general. There’s a quote from a Little Feet song, Lowell George, basically, the people you misuse on the way up you’re going to meet on the way back down.
BR: Yeah, and it basically applies to just about everything.
RD: Definitely does.
BR: Cool, man. Well, thanks for the time today. Stoked you guys are coming back. Glad you’re back on the road. Glad you’re coming back to Montana. It seemed like there was a long time where you didn’t make it back to Montana, but it’s becoming more often again.
RD: I’m glad to be back, for sure. We’re all happy about that.
BR: All right, have a good day. Thanks again.
RD: Yes, do take care. See you later.